How to Create a Piano Syllabus by the Author of AMEB Piano for Leisure Series 4

By Tim Topham | Exams

Nov 15

This article first appeared in The Piano Teacher magazine, Issue 11, 2017. Access the full online magazine for free here.

***Discount Available for Australian readers: 20% off and free shipping. Find out more here. Available for a limited time.***

Have you ever thought how much fun it would be to create your own set of exam books, featuring all of your favourite music?

  • What music would you choose?
  • How would you decide on the right level for each grade?
  • How would you prioritise what your students were learning in each piece?

Well, I was recently afforded this experience when I was engaged to help the AMEB put together their next series of Piano for Leisure (PFL) books, due for release in late 2017.

Having spent much of my time over the last six years exploring all the best new repertoire from around the world and sharing ideas about music and teaching on my blog, this was a perfect opportunity to put my knowledge into action.

In this article, I want to share with you a behind-the-scenes look at the preparation of a new series of books including the process, the considerations for music choices, grading and some of the challenges, so that other teachers will have a better understanding of what goes into creating a series like this.

To be honest, even after years of teaching piano and using all sorts of different music and books in my teaching (and often complaining about incorrect levelling of exam pieces), I had no idea just how challenging a process this was until I tried it myself.

Interested to find out what goes into producing a new grade book series?

Let’s explore the process.

The Goal

Nine books (Preliminary to Grade 8) each containing 12 pieces that cover a variety of styles and genres, are pedagogically interesting and incrementally challenging and, most importantly, that students would actually want to play.

Due to the fact that copyright clearance may not be obtained for pieces that are selected, each book needs a minimum of 16 selections at the first draft stage to ensure that backups are available if needed.

The Process

The process of compiling the music actually started around 8 years ago when I challenged myself to explore as much repertoire as possible as a regular part of my teaching.

As my blog readers will know, I’ve never taught solely from any one book and I’ve always loved using music from as many sources as possible. Over the years I’ve built up a considerable library of music and, having presented about repertoire ideas at a number of conferences, knew what was working in teaching around the country.

I was then invited to visit the warehouses of Hal Leonard and Devirra (Alfred) for a day’s trawling through further music options.

Many thanks to Richard Snape and the team at Hal, and Anna Zerner and the team at Devirra for their help putting together their selections and acceding to all my requests.

One of my goals was to get feedback from you, the teachers, about how you would like to see the next series take shape: some of your frustrations, things you’d like included (or removed) and some of your own music suggestions.

After inviting feedback on my blog, at workshops and through Facebook, I’ve taken on board a huge number of ideas and hope that I’ve been able to include not just a fantastic selection of music, but as many improvements as possible to the format of the books themselves.  

The Considerations

One of the trickiest of all tasks, when compiling a graded repertoire series that aligns with an examination system, is ensuring that the pieces match the level of standard expected of the grade.

Unfortunately, no computer algorithms have been designed to do this, so all grading involves a degree of intuition and subjectivity and I have to admit that this was one of the most challenging parts of the process.

If you’ve ever wondered why pieces can seem so incorrectly levelled, spare a thought for the person who put it the book or series together. In putting the books together, they have an impossible juggling act involving at least 13 different priorities.

Here are just some of the things I have had to consider when selecting music for this series:

  • Fun – will students enjoying playing this piece? Is it appealing? A lot of the reasoning behind my selections came from my own testing of pieces with students over the years. Furthermore, will parents be able to put up with their children playing this piece ad nauseam?
  • Pedagogical interest – how does each piece develop a student’s technique? What are the challenges inherent in the music? Does the piece have enough depth for examiners to be able to make a considered judgement about a student’s abilities?
  • Challenge – I’ve aimed for a mix of levels at each grade, so that there will be some options at the easier end of the spectrum some at the harder end.
  • Key – is the key suited to the technical work examined at this level? Is there a balance between major and minor as well as tonalities at each level?
  • Meter – is there a variety in time signatures, tempi and style?
  • Australian – I wanted to include a good representation of modern and classic Australian literature and feature composers that may not currently be very well known. I’ve also chosen to feature new music from many living composers.
  • Mix of arrangements versus originals – I didn’t want a series in which every classical or pop piece was an arrangement and so worked hard to mix this up. I also wanted to commission a few local arrangements of pieces to better suit the aims of the grade.
  • Lasting Merit – a lot of pop music, while popular at the moment, may well not be recognised or enjoyed by students in a year’s time or more, so I had to make certain that any pop music choices would stand the test of time.
  • Genre – for all books, I’ve aimed for a mix between classical, pop/film, jazz and contemporary in order to give students and teachers a range of options for creating a balanced program and to ensure students, who may only purchase one book, may explore a variety of styles.
  • Duration  – There is a specific time allowed for each exam and pieces need to be an appropriate length.
  • Chordal versus melodic – much of the contemporary music available today is very chordal and the harder the music gets, the bigger and more complex the chord and octave work becomes. For this reason, I’ve tried to include pieces at every grade level that will be approachable for students with smaller hands.
  • Already in the syllabus? – Increasingly, many of the great options have already been featured in books or the manual list for the syllabus – particularly our favourite classical and popular options. I wanted to introduce as much new music as possible so I have avoided simply raiding the existing options.
  • Copyright – Of course, there may be times when, even after finding the perfect piece that matches all of the above points, the copyright holder might not grant permission to reproduce it and therefore it cannot be included. Similarly, for some pieces that need arranging or abridging, arranging licences may not be forthcoming and again, these pieces have to be dropped.

I had no idea how many considerations went into compiling a series like this until I took on the role myself. However, I believe that in trying to balance all of these competing aspects, we’ll be producing books of the highest possible merit and a series that will hopefully stand the test of time.

The Challenge of Fun versus Pedagogy

One of the trickiest aspects of the process has been putting aside literally hundreds of great, fun pieces that I know students love because they just don’t have enough pedagogical merit to feature on an examination syllabus.

As many teachers will know, much of today’s contemporary piano solo repertoire (either original or arrangements) involve the left-hand moving in fifths, octaves or some kind of arpeggiated, repetitive patterns. While students love playing these and enjoy the sounds, there is not much substance to develop left-hand technique or suit an examination.

While I have musical options literally up to my ears around the house that I know students, especially teens and adults would love to play, I wasn’t always able to include them because they lack qualities that make them effective as pedagogical and examinable material. While I have included some film-music styles that are more repetitive, I needed to ensure that this was balanced with works that challenged both hands and included some fun technical difficulties as well.

So, what pieces did I actually include? Now, I’d like to introduce you to some of the pieces you’ll soon be able to enjoy with your students and present for examinations.

While I’d love to share all the pieces with you, space restrictions only allow me to choose a few for this article. I hope these give you just a little taste of what you can expect from Series 4.

Later, I’ll also outline one of the biggest changes we’ve made to the series in the form of the new performance notes.

Level 1 Selections

Preliminary No 3: Three plus two

I was keen to include some pieces in unusual meter from the early stages of this series as students really enjoy them and they provide valuable teaching points. While melodically fairly straightforward, this piece offers challenges in articulation and phrase shaping throughout.

Grade 1 No 11: In dreams

In dreams is one of the main themes featured in The Lord of the Rings soundtrack and will be known to many students. With more and more young people developing a love of orchestral music through film before symphonies and classical music concerts, I wanted to ensure a representation in each grade book of music from film and/or musical theatre. This piece is great for developing early phrase shaping.

Grade 2 No 10: Mad world

 

This is an example of one of the pop pieces that will have immediate appeal for students. Given its chordal construction, there are lots of opportunities for teachers to explore chord playing with students as they unpack the progressions. It also happens to be in E Dorian which provides more learning opportunities for students around the use of modes in popular music.

Grade 3 No 4: Midnight ride

Bober’s Midnight ride is a rollicking piece in the style of Pirates of the Caribbean which exposes students to a fast 12/8 meter, multiple recognisable patterns, optional pedal and wide range of the keyboard.  

Grade 4 No 1 : Tambo tango

Exploring the music of modern Australian composers was one of my favourite parts of putting this series together. You’ll find Australian composers represented in every grade book. Arnold’s Tambo tango is an appealing piece that makes clearer use of the tango rhythm and introduces students to the crossing of hands and the need to balance melody and accompaniment between the hands.

Level 2

Grade 5 No 8: Sunday morning revival

Sunday morning revival offers students a clever jazz-inspired piece with hints of gospel style. It’s really fun to play and teach and offers rhythmic and coordination challenges. Each grade book features at least a couple of Jazz pieces, whether they are arrangements of standards or, like this one, original jazz-styled compositions.

Grade 6 No 5: Nuvole bianche

No modern collection of solo piano music would be complete without the work of Luduvico Einaudi, a prolific composer who writes mainly for film and whose minimalist style is akin to Philip Glass, Max Richter and Michael Nyman. Teens and adults in particular will enjoy playing this piece and Yann Tiersen Comptine d’un autre ete: l’apres-midi, also found in Grade 6.

Grade 7 No 8: Fugue in F minor

As mentioned in Part 1 of this article, I’ve attempted to include works from four genres in each book: modern, jazz, classical and pop/film. Randall’s Fugue in F minor is an interesting selection in that it’s one of very few fugues I’ve found written by living composers and crossing over the Baroque/modern piano solo divide.

Grade 8 No 3: The way it is

While you may not know this piece by name, you’ll certainly recognise it when you play it! Hornsby’s iconic piece is a pop song that has stood the test of time and continues to receive airplay. Students will particularly enjoy the challenges of the two solo sections when learning this piece.

 

New Performance Notes

One of the most exciting changes we’ve made to this series is to reconsider the place of the performance notes. In the past, performance notes for each piece were found at the back of the book and focussed mainly on interpretative and performance directions, with some suggestions about practice ideas.  

In Series 4, the performance notes will be found at the end of each piece rather than gathered at the end of the publication. This is a new layout for AMEB publications and it is hoped that it will be more convenient for teachers and students alike.

In creating these performance notes, I’ve drawn on my own teaching experience to present suggestions in four separate categories, although not all categories appear in every entry. Each category has specific aims according to the subheadings below:

  • Elements and challenges – here, the main focuses and challenges of the work are identified.
  • Notes for the student – these are practice and performance tips aimed at the student.  
  • Notes for the teacher – this is aimed at the teacher, and provides some teaching strategies and solutions for teachers first approaching the work or those needing a new angle for a student.
  • Creative practice ideas – here, I offer some extension activities to help teachers and students engage with the piece in new ways, often using improvisation and creative concepts to extend the student and reinforce key concepts related to the style of the work. Note that all pieces must be performed as notated for examination purposes.

I hope that you enjoy the structured framework that these creative teaching ideas present and that you will consider how you can design similarly creative activities for your students when they are learning other works. I’ll be demonstrating these ideas in action during my AMEB workshop tours.

NB: Teachers should note that the Creative Practice Ideas are for practice and teaching purposes only – the work must be performed as notated for the examination.

Special Discount Available

For a limited short time only:

20% off all publications in the PFL 4 Series PLUS anything else online at printmusicworks.com PLUS free shipping.

Doesn’t get better than that!

Click here for more details.

Conclusion

It has been my absolute pleasure working with the AMEB to provide you with what I hope will be an invaluable resource for both you and your students in the coming years. Thanks again to all the people who have made this new series possible including, but not limited to, Julie Spithill, Steve Hodgson, Bernard Depasquale, the review panel and AMEB board.

If you have any questions about the pieces or the approach that I use to teach them, don’t hesitate to contact me through my blog. I look forward to meeting many of you in the coming months as you start using these pieces with your students.

Follow

About the Author

Best-known for his blogging and teaching, Tim is also a well-respected presenter, performer and accompanist based in Melbourne, Australia. You can check him out on Google+, Facebook and Twitter.

×
Enjoy this video? Sign up for updates.
Click below to get notified next time I go live.